Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

25.7.06

Top Ten Week: My favorite books (fiction and non-fiction)

As we continue Top Ten Week, I figured I'd stay in the realm of literature for another day and run down my favorite books. I decided to split them into fiction and non-fiction just for the fun of it. This is a really hard category, because I have read a lot of books. But I'll try! I know I will have some honorable mention, because that's where I'm going to put the kids' books.

FICTION.
1. Smile on the Void by Stuart Gordon. This book is out of print, but I remember reading it more than once in the mid- to late-1980s, when I used to check it out of my local library. It's a biography of a legendary figure named Ralph M'Botu Kitaj, who was born in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 and became a strange shamanistic figure deep in the heart of Africa. This book is his story, but also the story of his biographer, and the story becomes how these two men change and how Kitaj tries to transform himself and others into something greater than human. It's a very weird book, but strangely moving and more than a bit trippy. If you're at your local library or at some backwoods used book sale, look for it. It's neat.

2. Sinai Tapestry by Edward Whittemore. Another long out-of-print book, but apparently it has been re-released by Old Earth Books (I may have to order it). This is the first book in a four-part series by Whittemore, and it's the best one. It's a story about several weird characters in the Middle East at the end of the 19th and through the beginning of the 20th century, including Plantagenet Strongbow, who wrote a 33-volume history of sex in Victorian England before disappearing into the Egyptian desert, Joe O'Sullivan Beare, who fought the English in Ireland during the 1916 uprising before heading to the Holy Land and eventually playing a 12-year poker game for control of Jerusalem (which is the subject of the second book of the quartet), and Haj Haroun, an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem who is as old as the city itself. In this book, a Trappist monk finds the secret original Bible and spends the rest of his life forging another one, and at the end of the book several characters end up in Smyrna in 1922, which is some of the most tragic stuff I've ever read. I love this book and I'm glad it's back in print.

3. White Noise by Don DeLillo. This is probably my favorite book. Every time I read it I am struck by its insight into the human and American condition, its satire of pop culture, and its biting humor. DeLillo is one of my favorite authors, and he's written good books before and since this one, but this is a perfect distillation of his ideas on history and conspiracy, as well as what binds us together. Excellent stuff.

4. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut. Boy, this is a good book. It's funny and sad, it's bizarre, and it stays with you long after you read it. Vonnegut's style is nicely suited for the material, because both stories - the war story about Dresden and the Tralfamadorian one - are a bit surreal, and Vonnegut is good at keeping everything grounded. It's a fast read, too, so you can read it again and again!

5. Picture This by Joseph Heller. As much as I love Catch-22, I like this book a little more. It's not as funny as Heller's first book, nor does it have a visceral scene like when Yossarian comes upon the bombadier, but it's more deeply moving and wry, plus it offers very excellent social and political commentary that's more subtle than Catch-22. Heller deftly compares Aristotle's Greece, Rembrandt's Holland, and contemporary America, showing the tragic similarities among them. He does this through Rembrandt's painting "Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer," which hangs in the Met - I saw it a few years ago, and it's pretty keen.

6. The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. This might be the weirdest book I've ever read, but it's still excellent. It is literally in the form of a dictionary, with hundreds of entries that tell a strange tale of the Khazars, a tribe that lived around the Caspian Sea at the end of the first millennium and converted to Judaism. It's a dreamlike book, with bizarre folktales and modern murders, and it's fun to read, because you're never sure what's going on. There's a male version and a female version, identical except for one sentence. I have the male version, and I have never discovered what is different about the female one.

7. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I love re-reading this book, and I've done it several times because I used to teach it. It's ahead of its time, it influenced politics, and it's a very interesting adventure story as well as being a grand allegory. I've heard that Nostromo is better, but I haven't read that yet. I own it, though, so I'll get to it eventually!

8. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. I keep meaning to read this again, because the first time I did I was astonished by how beautiful it was. It's a modern fairy tale, and Helprin's dreamy prose evokes a long-lost world that still feels familiar. This is the New York of fantasies, and the love story in this book is so powerful and compelling you wish this world existed.

9. Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Interestingly, I don't really like the other Robbins books I've read, but this one is very good. It's a meditation on immortality and love that stretches across the centuries, but it's also quite ribald and very funny. Plus, Robbins gives us plenty of information on how to make perfume, and don't we need more of that kind of esoteric knowledge?

10. Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. This book apparently divides families and causes friends to fight because opinions on it are so mixed. I think it's fantastic - creepy, scary, and funny all at the same time. Eco obviously had a blast putting together this conspiracy, and it satirizes all the weird beliefs people hold about the history of the world. The Illuminatus! Trilogy did this well, too, but I like this book more.

Just missing the cut: the Hitchhiker's "trilogy" plus Adams' two Dirk Gently books (which are better than the trilogy, by the way, if not as laugh-out-loud funny); The Lord of the Rings; Vox by Nicholson Baker (a story about a man and a woman on a phone-sex line and the 200-page conversation they have - very dirty but brilliant, and written before Baker became a raving pervert, apparently); Imajica by Clive Barker (a fantasy masterpiece); The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (great King Arthur book told from the point of view of the women); Possession by A. S. Byatt (the only Byatt book I like); House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski (the scariest book I've ever read, but it's brilliant); Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (a wonderful novel about magic in the 1920s); Pontius Pilate by Paul Maier (the Jesus story from Pilate's point of view).

Honorable mention (kids' lit): Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. This would be a perfect family-type movie. Why no one has made it yet is beyond me. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engel. My favorite of the trilogy, although they're all good. The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill, The Westing Game and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ellen Raskin. Two of my absolute favorites. If I owned the latter I would read it probably once a year, and I probably do read The Westing Game every other year or so.

NON-FICTION.

1. Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. I almost hesitate to put this on the non-fiction list, since much of it has been revealed as fiction. Although this is atrocious history, it's a fun book to read, and it's pretty fascinating. If you hated The Da Vinci Code (and who didn't?), this book tells the same story much better. I still read it every so often, and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. It did, however, get me very interested in the Merovingians, which led eventually to my Master's Degree, so it's not all bad.

2. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. This is a big, meaty book, but I couldn't put it down. It's unbelievably interesting. Bloom's thesis is that Shakespeare, through his plays, changed the way people thought of themselves, as they became more introspective and willing to question the way they lived their lives. He goes through each play in pretty good detail (some more than others, obviously) and shows how Shakespeare did this. It's brilliant.

3. O Jerusalem! by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. A book about the birth pangs of Israel, and although we know how it turns out, it still reads like a thriller. That, for me, is the mark of a good book - keeping you riveted even though you know the ending. It's another hefty book, with a cast of thousands, but Collins and LaPierre keep everything humming along, and although they are clearly on the Jews' side, they also show the Arab side very well. These days, this book is more relevant than ever.

4. The Blood of Israel by Serge Groussard. Speaking of which, here's another book about Israel that is similarly gripping. Groussard goes into great detail about the 1972 Olympics, and again, even though we know the tragic ending, we can't stop reading. Each athlete comes to life, and when they die, we feel it keenly. This book is also out of print (damn them all!), but Vengeance uses it as a source (and was what Spielberg based Munich on) and One Day in September is a good merging of the two books, but Groussard's is better than either.

5. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. This is yet another huge honkin' book, but I don't care! In the 1930s West went on a journey through the Balkans, and this is her account of the area and the people who live there. I love the Balkans, and this book is beautifully written and evocative of not only the region but the time period. West was not fooled by Hitler, and wrote a great deal on the threat he posed, and she also goes into great detail about the clash of Christian and Muslim civilizations in the Balkans. It's a wonderful book.

6. Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan. Yes, I like the Balkans. Kaplan is a travel writer/political analyst, and I enjoy his books very much. This was the first one by him that I read, and it's a very interesting look at the Balkans after the break-up of Yugoslavia and Communism. Kaplan follows West's template (he makes reference to her book often) and discovers a great many things that political leaders in the West might have heeded a few years later.

7. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen. In recent years I have read people bashing this book because they say Matthiessen got his facts wrong, but it remains a gripping read about Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. Matthiessen obviously believes that Peltier, who is rotting in a federal prison right now, is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted, and even if you don't buy it, this book is a wonderful account of the new Indian wars and how our government continues to treat minorities poorly. Both the documentary Incident at Oglala and the underrated Val Kilmer movie Thunderheart were based on this book. It's a book that should make you angry, which is always fun.

8. A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton. Morton's book tells of Vienna in 1888-1889, when the Hapsburg Empire was ramshackle at best, and the heir to the throne, Rudolf, shot himself and his mistress in his hunting lodge outside of town. It's a remarkable book about a Baroque culture completely out of touch with the changing world, and Morton does a nice job with various character sketches of Vienna's more famous inhabitants and how Rudolf's suicide affected not only the Austrian world, but the wider world around it. It's a haunting book.

9. The Reckoning by Charles Nicholl. Ah, Christopher Marlowe. I have mentioned my love for Marlowe before, and this book, which delves into his murder and the shadowy world of Elizabethan espionage, is wonderful. It's amazing how Francis Walsingham and his ilk got things done in the 16th century, and the spy stuff is the best part of the book. Nicholl does a very nice job bringing Marlowe to life, too. Very intriguing. I own another book about Marlowe's murder but haven't read it yet. I hope it will be half as good as this one is.

10. Parliament of Whores by P. J. O'Rourke. This may be the funniest political book you will ever read (America: the Book comes close, but that's not grounded in reality). Even today, almost 20 years later, it remains relevant. O'Rourke skewers every aspect of government, and his sword cuts both Democrats and Republicans. He's kind of an old-school conservative, so he comes at it from that angle, but he spares no one. As he puts it, the thing about government today is not how to make it work, but how to make it stop? This book is sheer genius.

Sorry for the length! Can you tell I love books! Share your favorites!

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8 Comments:

Blogger john sweet said...

You know I am more the Sci-fi/Fantasy buff (which led to the near death of one teacher when, in front of a class full of students, I exclaimed, "I love Dick!" His heart-attack was delayed when I explained that I meant Philip K. Dick).

However, I also love Max Barry (Jennifer Government, Syrup, and Company), Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (watch that you get the correct Murakami or you might get a bit more than you bargained for, though I like Ryu Murakami's Almost Transparent Blue... look for A Wild Sheep Chase, Kafka on the Beach, Norwegian Wood, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Dance, Dance, Dance), Robbins, Vonnegut, and Douglas Coupland. OH! And, Christopher Moore... great wit and wisdom.

Non-fiction... not so much. I stick with my National Geographic in that sense.

UncleMonster

26/7/06 4:02 AM  
Blogger Jude said...

I love Small Island by Andrea Levy - really masterful book written in different voices providing an insight into war years for Afro Caribbeans and others- also moving love story; Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnely- beautiful first novel, Curious Incident of the Dog in the night time; Northanger Abbey; Pride and Prejudice; Empress Orchid to name a few. Like the site by the way.

26/7/06 12:06 PM  
Blogger Chance said...

I listed a few of my favorite here. Of the authors you mention that I'm familiar with: to me, nothing comes close to catch-22, though God Knows is my second favorite Heller. I love a lot of Eco, but to me the first and best is Name of the Rose. I thought White Noise was good, but the central conceit of a german studies prof not being able to speak German was too outre for my taste. I much preferred the 800-page Underworld. The # 6 and 7 on your list are also favorites of mine.

26/7/06 8:12 PM  
Blogger tomthedog said...

I should do more top ten lists, too! I like this idea. I'd have a couple of the same authors but different books on my list -- my Vonnegut would be Cat's Cradle, and I just have to go with Catch-22. Also on my list: Huckleberry Finn, and The Remains of the Day. I'd have to think a while to get some others. Jitterbug Perfume might be up there. And I really loved Carter Beats the Devil, too.

Interesting choice of Vox. Great book, but -- you think it was written before he went pervy? And you've made me really want to go find that Whittemore book. Sounds awesome.

27/7/06 9:02 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Very nice choices, everyone - I love doing things like these because I get a lot of interesting suggestions.

Jude: thanks for stopping by - I hope you come back!

Chance: I liked God Knows too, and I certainly love Catch-22. Heller gets a bit shafted because his first book is such a classic. Underworld is also good, but I thought it could have been a bit tighter, which is why I liked White Noise better.

Tom: When I say Vox was before Baker went really crazy, I'm thinking of Fermata. Vox is obscene, of course (I mean that in a good way), but according to everything I've read about Fermata (and I haven't read the book), he gets really creepy in it. Vox is fun obscene, and Fermata, apparently, isn't. Still, Vox and The Mezzanine (the other Baker book I've read) are very good.

27/7/06 10:52 AM  
Blogger Lefty said...

I think I would of liked Heart of Darkeness more if it wasn't such an obvious rip-off of Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Conrad's such a hack.

27/7/06 2:34 PM  
Blogger Lefty said...

Yes that was a joke.

27/7/06 2:34 PM  
Blogger tomthedog said...

Fermata was a bit creepier, because the sexy parts aren't consensual -- this guy has the ability to stop time, and he uses it basically to fondle women. Definitely not as good as Vox, but there's some good, well-written, minutely observed stuff in there, as per his usual, and I liked it. Maybe that makes me the perv.

27/7/06 11:39 PM  

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